Gratitude is not a Virtue

Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland#Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Germany

It is often said that gratitude is a virtue, and being grateful for what we have is a precondition for happiness. Besides that gratitude is often invoked in moments of preachiness and attempts to exert social control—”be grateful, young lady”—I have been skeptical of gratitude as an idea. I don’t mean the linguistic politeness formula of saying “thank you” in response to courtesy—I mean the idea that one should exist in a constant state of being actively thankful for every little blessing, and that if you are not, you are an “ingrate” and you will not be happy.

For me, I don’t associate being “grateful” with being happy. I associate happiness with the opposite of gratitude—with taking for granted. I am happiest in those moments, or during those periods of life, when the things I love and want and need seem so abundant and secure that I do not have to be actively grateful for them. You know what I’m referring to—the times when you choose not to spend time with a loved one, because you know your loved one will be with you forever. The times when you don’t watch the sunset on the lake, because you know you can watch it any day. The times you don’t eat until you’re stuffed, because you know there will still be enough to eat the next day. Gratitude forces you to think about all the bad things that can happen, but happiness is about forgetting about the bad possibilities—or perhaps happiness is a world where bad things don’t happen as much.

In other words, there is something better than gratitude. There is the feeling of being so secure in what you have that you do not need to be “grateful” for it. There is the feeling that what you want or need is so abundant, or so accessible, or so equitably distributed, that you can afford to take it for granted. There is the feeling of giving to others for its own sake, and not expecting any prescribed attitude in return. There is the possibility of a world where compassion and generosity are so commonplace, mutual, and so freely given, that they would not have to be met with gratitude.

Gratitude, in short, is not a virtue. Gratitude is an adaption to a world of scarcity.

I’m not absolutely against gratitude as a mindset. There are realities that we cannot change—tragedy, death—and gratitude is a tool to inoculate ourselves against those “whips and scorns of time.” It is also an appropriate response to the real charity, generosity, and love that does happen in our world as it currently exists. But why do we valorize and celebrate gratitude so much? Isn’t gratitude just a reflection of the default state of the world and life—unjust and cruel? Wouldn’t it be a better world if it were one where none of us had to be grateful for having our reasonable needs and wants met?

I, for one, live for those moments when I don’t have to be explicitly grateful—and I strive for a world where no one has to be grateful.

Image: Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland

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In Defense of Not Having Goals

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

—Soren Kierkegaard

I always admired my goal-oriented friends. They had 10-year plans outlining their career trajectory; graphs predicting their millionaire status by age 30; real estate purchases and investments charted; and one individual even delivered a “quarterly report” on his vaunted progress toward his inexorable success. It was charismatic, visionary, and I was drawn to it, aspired to it.

But applying their approach to my own life never worked. I could rarely see more than one step ahead of where I was. Trying to determine my destination in advance that way felt inauthentic, ingenuous, a bit self-absorbed, in a way that I couldn’t articulate. I was satisfied with my work and play and life. Yet in the back of my mind, my seeming inability to set and commit to a big goal left me feeling inadequate in relation to my hyper goal-driven friends. I assumed that, despite my contentment, my efforts weren’t as good–because they didn’t obviously add up to an audacious outcome.

In time, I learned to resolve this internal conflict. Now, I can see that I just have my own approach, it just happens to be quite different from the one followed by my goal-oriented friends. I call it a process-oriented approach.

In my approach, I don’t try to define in advance the outcomes of my efforts, and then reflexively prescribe myself the process and practices that will get me to that outcome. I have come to believe that this goal-oriented approach has some major flaws. What if I don’t enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the process of reaching the goal? What if I don’t want to make the world conform to my singular vision of myself? What if I want to serve others rather than make the world serve me? What if I had to ignore other opportunities, neglect curiosities, and delay many a great many gratifications in order to stay on track toward my goal? And worst–the question that always plagued me when setting goals–what if, after everything I’ve invested or sacrificed, the destination isn’t what I thought it would be?

Instead, I order my life the other way around: I start with the process and leave the outcome open-ended. What activities, tasks, and projects do I like doing and being part of? Does the work I’m doing enable me to support myself? Am I interested and challenged and enriched by the work I’m doing and the play I’m engaged in? How often am I bored? How often am I challenged? Does my work and leisure time align with my values and principles? Do I have freedom and autonomy, but also the embrace of a community? Does my work generally support efforts that aim to expand beauty and fairness in the world?

These questions–not “where will I be in 10 years”–are my guiding ones, and they have worked for me so far. In fact, a recent article vindicates my approach. According to one professor, the process-oriented approach not only has the potential to provide more overall happiness in life. It can also get you to outcomes in the end:

…I recommend … an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.

I’ve become content with my lack of discrete goals and comfortable with the possibility that my existentialism-infused, process-oriented days either may, or may not, add up to the “big goal” that my goal-oriented friends’ will. But I will have lived each and every day in a way that suits my interests, challenges me, captivates my imagination, and aligns with my values. To me, that in itself would be a worthy goal.

“I stay where I am happy”

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Note: Wrote this about two months ago.

After a whirlwind four months which brought me from my former home base in cold, windy Anatolia, to the now well-known Gezi protests in Istanbul, to a road trip through every time zone in the contiguous United States, I am in an apartment of my own in central Istanbul while the sounds of Taksim waft up through my open window.

My neighborhood is a twisted tangle of roads and alleys, all overrun with stray cats, in which the only reliable way to navigate is by the topography underfoot–the convoluted streets and changing urban geography make any other means of navigation difficult. Even the municipal police, during the protests this past spring, supposedly got lost when they tried to chase protesters down these streets. I find my way around by the slope of the incline and glittering slices of the Bosphorus glimpsed between rows of Neoclassic apartment buildings.

At my new workplace, a number of my colleagues are expats living here because of Turkish spouses, or Turkish relatives. I am sometimes envious–I wish I had a good, clear reason to be here that would stop others from interrogating me, and me from questioning myself. Is it because I’ve dreamed of living in Istanbul ever since I first came here, 6 years ago, and this might be the last best chance I’ll have to do it? Is it because I finally found a decent, full-time adult job with a satisfying work environment? Is it to relive the experience of living in Turkey with my partner-in-crime, best friend, and now roommate? Is it because of my friends and unexpected well-connectedness in this country? Am I, like some expats here, bored of living in a relatively functional, economically prosperous advanced democracy and need to continue to spice up my life with tear gas and misogyny and bureaucracy? Or can’t I let go of the things that first struck me, and always strike me, as beautiful and wonderful about Turkey?

Either way, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I want to be somewhere else. Every day offers up some kind of adventure, spontaneity, unexpected encounter, or small weirdness. The restlessness of this city cancels out my existential restlessness and creates a sort of contentment. It reminds me of a small piece of writing a former of student composed, and which I keep on my refrigerator. The students were instructed to come up with a 6-word story a-la Hemingway. Hers:

I stay where I am happy.

Top photo: view from my living room looking toward the Bosphorus. Bottom photo: View of Yenicami with Bosphorus and moon.

Happiness and blossoms

How I Would Paint Happiness
Something sudden, a windfall,
a meteor shower. No –
a flowering tree releasing
all its blossoms at once,
and the one standing beneath it
unexpectedly robed in bloom,
transformed into a stranger
too beautiful to touch.
— Lisel Mueller, “Imaginary Paintings,” Alive Together: New And Selected Poems

But listen to me. For one moment
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you.
— Jalal-al-Din Rumi

Desire and regret, regret and desire

If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire.

– Vera Pavlova, Russian poet

We don’t need to fear endings. If we are sad when something ends, it means that there was something good and worthwhile in whatever it was that ended, and if it was good and worthwhile, then we will always have happy memories of it, and isn’t that all we have in the end of everything anyway?

Thanks to MR for sharing the poem.